Saturday, November 8, 2014

Advanced Magic

The advanced magic chapter of Spheres of Power is almost done (or as done as it needs to be, given that new samples and some adjustments to the rules still need to  be made before publication) and I wanted to take some time to answer the question of why.

Why did we set things up this way, with magic divided into basic and advanced categories? Why is advanced magic listed as 'optional rules', when everything contained therein is already possible in the core Pathfinder magic system? I wanted to take some time to answer these questions properly, as they not only get into how SoP is used at the table, but also the whole design philosophy behind our work with Spheres of Power itself.

Many people have discussed at length "Story-driven" vs "Mechanics-driven" RPGs, but for our purposes I want to discuss another, similar-yet-ultimately-different divide: "GM-driven" vs "Designer-driven".

Perhaps the best single illustration of this concept is high-level play. When players have reached a high enough level that certain magic becomes available (Raise Dead, Teleport, Scrying, etc.), parties who have this magic play the game very differently than parties who don't. This is why high-level play is so difficult to balance, as it becomes almost impossible to guess what the party does or does not have at their disposal, and one of two things usually happens: everyone sticks to the rules (and often complains about how broken the game is at high levels), or the GM must improvise, customizing the encounters depending on the party and story in question to keep things interesting for everyone.

In the early days of the hobby, rules were light, and houserules were common. There were so many areas the rules simply didn't cover that DM improvisation was, in fact, often a necessity, so much so that the game might be completely different from one table to the other. One one hand, this made things annoying as each table meant learning a new list of houserules. On the other hand, this gave GMs both ability and permission to create whatever game or setting they wanted; it wasn't hard to write new rules if they wanted a world that, for instance, didn't have an arcane/divine disparity.

Then came 3rd edition, and everything changed. Through a strict codification and expansion of rules, the need for houserules could be lessened, and play could be standardized across tables. In many ways this was a blessing; players could move from table to table without having to re-learn the game, and things like organized play became possible. On the other hand, this also made things harder for GMs looking to go their own direction. The base-assumption of the game leaned so far against GM-driven mechanics that many players saw even the slightest breach of the wealth-by-level guidelines as some sort of betrayal of the social contract. Those GMs who wanted to houserule a unique setting or style of game also found themselves needing to re-write pages and pages of pre-existing rules.

Being a continuation of 3rd edition, Pathfinder falls squarely in the second category. However, as 3rd party developers (like myself) fall outside the official Pathfinder way of doing things, that places us, by definition, in the 1st category. Our job isn't to tell players how the game IS played, but to give them aids when contemplating how it MIGHT be played. We design for the players who are tired of Scry and Fry high-level tactics, or for the GMs who want to try a different kind of world than that which core Pathfinder infers. As such, while virtually anything possible through the core Pathfinder magic system is also possible through the SoP system, we decided to make no assumptions on our part as to how GMs would implement it.

In this fashion, the divide between basic magic and optional, advanced magic becomes an important change in mindset for both players and GMs. Instead of making GMs remove options they didn't want in their world, they can include the ones that fit. Players are completely at liberty to create scry and fry experts or use other game-changing tactics, but they must ask GM permission first instead of assuming that, since its in the rules, it will work for the style of game they are playing.

Perhaps this sort of thinking isn't new to you and your table, but all too often I've found it is. People get so caught up in how the game should or shouldn't be played that they forget how much freedom a tabletop RPG offers. We wanted SoP to be the toolkit for those who want more control over how their story is told, and are looking specifically for something they're not getting through the default assumptions of the Pathfinder roleplaying game.

Or at least that's our reasoning. What I'm most looking forward to after launch is seeing just how people end up using these tools we're making, and what they create as a result of them.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Wandering RPG Masters

Today, Sean Reynolds launched his kickstarter for the Five Moons RPG. To my understanding, this is his first big project since leaving Paizo earlier this year. To the design-uninitiated, I could understand if this project slipped your notice; the tagline the project is using for itself is more or less 'Pathfinder with the bits I didn't like changed.' It sounds like that one GM you know who thinks his houserules are so cool he should just publish it as his own game.

Except in this case, it's frikkin' Sean Reynolds writing the houserules. A guy who worked on D&D 3rd edition for 4 years, Pathfinder for 5 years, and even more as a freelancer is doing his version of how the game should be played. Comparisons are easily made to 13th Age by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet of D&D 3rd ed and 4th ed fame (who're running their own kickstarter), and Numenera by Monte Cook (who's kickstarter was a legend on that particular fundraising site). Wolfgang Baur may be designing for Pathfinder, but he's mostly doing it as a 3rd party products these days, making his own spin on the game (he's running his own kickstarters as well.)

The way Kickstarter is changing game design is an old subject by now, and tabletop RPGs has always been an industry built on people making things in their basements, but these days it seems like all the big names are getting out of the old D&D/Pathfinder corporate world and starting their own companies and building their own games.

Technically this move has been happening for a long time; when D&D 4th ed came out, angry retro-gamers reviving their favorite 1st ed games as a better alternative. Then Pathfinder was created as a haven for fans of 3rd edition. I've heard it said (although I'm having a devil of a time remembering the link) that D&D Next's big goal isn't so much the acquisition of new players as it is inviting old players to come give D&D another chance.

Some of them will, but I'm fairly confident that many of them won't; or at least, they'll add it to the list of other games they're also playing. Not only have players learned to love other games, but many of the great RPG developers, like wandering martial arts masters of old, have set of on pilgrimages to develop their own techniques, systems, and variations on the art form.

While I'm sure Wizards of the Coast would love to monopolize the tabletop RPG world as they once did, I don't think it will ever happen again. And I honestly think that's a good thing; I believe a bigger, more competitive marketplace will grow the hobby much more than a single monopoly. With every company and great name coming out with their own games these days, I feel like we're officially a major industry; RPG is no longer synonymous with D&D, even inside the D&D, F20 tradition. Like the formation of Europe, the great D&D empire has fallen and we've all divided into our own nations, unified in history and culture but divided in government. And perhaps, as the landscape settles, the upheaval ends, and the new RPG dynasties solidify behind these great designers, we'll find ourselves a stronger hobby for the divide.

Who knows. What I do know is that its a changing world, and there's a lot more players now. And that sounds fine to me.

Sunday, August 31, 2014


In about a week, I will have moved from Provo, UT to Ellensburg, WA. There're a few reasons prompting this move; After doing my undergrad, my wife's undergrad, and my wife's Masters at BYU it's definitely time for a change of scenery. It's a good chance to break out of old college ways and build some new, better habits in a new location. However, the biggest reason, (and the one that answers the question of "why Ellensburg instead of somewhere else?") is that Seattle WA, which is about 2 hours out of Ellensburg, is the world capital for my line of work. Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, a slew of indie companies, and even more video game makers all call the area home, making it the greatest concentration of my peers outside of the yearly Gen Con.  

Every motivational speech you'll ever hear usually talks about taking risks; big risks bring big rewards, you can't know unless you try, etc, etc. What these speeches don't spend time reminding you about is that risks also carry the chance of failure, and often the bigger the risk, the greater the chance of it blowing up in your face. 

Moving to the Northwest without a definite job and only a few contacts in the industry? Big risk. 

Biiiiiiiiig risk.

But it's one I think we have to take. We have a few years break before my wife goes back for her PhD, our kids are still young, and as a small 3rd party developer, there's no where else that will afford me as many opportunities as the Northwest. 

There was a time I took a similar risk. Back when I first graduated from college with my little Music Dance Theater degree, we decided to try our hand at New York. I went out early to try and get established and look for jobs, housing, and everything else my family would need. I even video blogged the experience while I was out there, but in the end it didn't work out and we ended up moving back to Provo.

And now, years later, we're doing it again. I think I'll have to video blog it as well, just for old time's sake.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

I am a Perfectionist

I am a Perfectionist. That doesn't mean what I make is perfect, but simply that I have a hard time letting things go when I know they can be better. This is, incidentally, the main reason why Spheres of Power is taking so long; with the way the project grew through Stretch Goals there suddenly became so much more to consider, which meant I kept getting to visit and re-visit the core mechanics and how they interacted with the new stuff. On the bright side this leads to a better book. On the down side this means the wait for the book keeps on growing.

There are benefits and drawbacks to this style of design. Some of my favorite creators have been perfectionists; author Patrick Rothfuss takes so long to write a book that he's famously decreed he will add another week (and I think now it's another year) to the wait time for his next book every time someone asks him how much longer they're going to have to wait, and his books are some of the finest ever written. (seriously, this is not an exaggeration; read "The Name of the Wind".) For the musical-lovers out there, there's a reason Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire dance routines are still considered some of the greatest ever made.

On the other side, it could be argued that while Patrick Rothfuss is an amazing author, it's this exact problem (taking so long between books) that's keeping him from getting the complete world-wide recognition he deserves. As for Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, there are stories about just how horrible they were to work with because of this very quality; they refused to stop until they were completely satisfied.

There's also a financial problem with perfectionism; in an industry that lives as hand-to-mouth as RPG design, perfectionism can keep you from getting a following going; there simply isn't enough products coming out quickly to get people excited for your work.

In the end I can't say whether or not my approach will prove the best one for me, I just know it's how I work. Perhaps it'll kill me, or perhaps it will be worth the wait. Here's hoping.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Design Musings: Tabletop RPGs and the Reiteration of Ideas

One of the most interesting things about the tabletop RPG medium is how malleable it is. There are a thousand ways any mechanic, theme, or concept could be iterated, and rules can be made up on the fly to cover any number of situations as they arise. For me, this means that I keep looking at things I've done and asking myself 'how else could I have done this?' Sometimes this becomes a two-edged sword, as it means I'm never quite satisfied with anything I've done (even now, I'm contemplating revisiting all of my old classes and forging new versions of them integrating the new things I've learned since they were written).

This idea of reiteration becomes increasingly important when doing something as all-encompassing as Spheres of Power, and is also one of the reasons why designing this book is taking so much longer than originally anticipated. It's not enough to come up with a single version of these new mechanics, and I keep finding myself going back to the base mechanics again and again, asking myself to come up with new ways it could be done, and then I can take my pick of which variant plays better.

I think it wouldn't be a stretch to say that reiteration to this degree is something completely unique to Tabletop RPGs as an artform: Video games can be remade, or a book or movie can be adapted, but tabletop RPGs can be reimagined on a daily basis, and many games release 2nd, 3rd, or 4th editions of themselves as time and changing audiences alter the way the game is played.

Even Pathfinder, which famously has declared it doesn't like and hopes not to need a Second Edition does this; FAQs give updates on dealing with questionable mechanics, players come up with new ways of playing the game and post these rules online, and new products 'fix' old mechanics through the power of hindsight (my favorite of these is Kobolds of Golarion and Ranger Traps. I've never seen a player actually use Ranger Traps as they're universally considered underpowered, so KoG introduced a bunch of new, much higher powered versions. Technically it wasn't re-writing the old rules, but it might as well have been for the power change they introduced.)

Right now, I'm revisiting several of the spheres that aren't quite where I want them to be. There's a few places where something is broken in need of fixing, but sometimes it's about delving in deep and asking myself how a sphere feels, how it works as a playstyle, and if there's a version that not only would play better, but simply be more fun. Of course I'm running out of time and in some cases I just have to solidify things and move on, but the book, and the industry as a whole, is made stronger by reiterating things; it gives us options, and it helps us free ourselves from the belief that in such a malleable medium that there's a right way or wrong way to play the game.

As an industry, we're still under the D&D shadow; the D20 tradition (or F20 tradition as I've heard it called) is built on this reiteration of what, at its heart, is the same game of picking an archetype and going on fantasy adventures involving monsters and treasure. Even D&D itself has just reiterated itself once again, and as an industry we're all sort of waiting to see how this new iteration plays with audiences.

Anyway, that's just my thought for the day. If you'll excuse me, I've got to go and invent a new version of Creation to see how it plays.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

On Self-Taught Industries

I'm trying to articulate something that's been on my mind lately. It's something that I started thinking about when we started the Spheres of Power kickstarter, grew during LTUE (Life, The Universe, and Everything, the BYU symposium on Sci Fi/Fantasy) and has sort of culminated lately. It's about what it means to be in a creative industry where the professionals are almost completely self-taught.

Tabletop RPGs are at a strange place as an industry. On one hand, it's an industry that can support several major companies and a host of smaller ones. On the other hand, it's still new enough and small enough that, at least to my knowledge, there's no college degree out there in tabletop RPG design. RPGs as we understand them weren't invented until the 70's, and after the initial crop who invented the game, many of the game's great pioneers were players who decided to contribute to their favorite hobby. Many of those pioneers are still major voices in the industry today.

This industry is certainly not the only one to have this unique professional/amateur relationship. I've known several best-selling authors who've argued that aspiring writers shouldn't bother getting a degree in Creative Writing and that doing so can actually be counter-intuitive to being a good writer. I've also known several stage directors that have complained about actors who've spent so much time in acting school that have a hard time relating to- and therefore playing- ordinary people. 

The thought that's been developing in my mind that I wanted to share, though, is that I think sometimes people take this 'formal education isn't required' thing and assume it means NO education is required. Few things could be further from the truth: Brandon Sanderson worked as an editor of a fiction magazine in college and wrote over half a dozen books before finally getting one published, and I once heard David Farland go through his study process before he began writing, and it involved dissecting novels with an almost clinical academia. Even those afore-mentioned RPG pioneers, the ones who's industry didn't even EXIST until 40 years ago usually had degrees in business, journalism, or an extensive background in other games before they got involved in the RPG scene.

Perhaps I'm conflating education and experience, but when you're dealing with a self-taught industry the two are usually one and the same. It's why the Writing Excuses podcast releases writing advice every week, and at least 1 in 5 of that given advice boils down to "go practice more." 

As the owner of a small RPG business, I've found there are lots of people that either want to ask me how they can break into the industry as well (since I did it so recently ago) or want to talk about the RPG they hope to publish one day. In both cases, my first response is to ask them about their education. What have they read? What have they written? What have they done that could convince a publisher, buyer, or kickstarter backer that they can, in fact, do what they claim they want to do? There have been times I've even thrown small projects at these people, just to see what they could do. More often than not, I never got anything more than a few unusable paragraphs back or some sort of excuse; often they didn't know what to do when actually given a chance to design.

When I got my start in designing, I knew I had no qualifications to speak of. Yes I studied novel writing with Brandon Sanderson, but most of my time had been spent studying acting, and while I'd played tabletop RPGs since I was small, my brothers did most of the GMing. What I did have, though, was the internet; I read everything I could find by different designers about their process and work, and I wikipedia'd a bunch of companies to get a sense for how they got started. I read Paizo books, 3rd Party Publishers, famous RPGs, obscure RPGs, and everything else I could find to get a sense for what separated good products from mediocre ones. My collection got pretty extensive. I knew I had little experience in running a business and putting books together, so I started small and tried to published products quickly, and every mistake I made along the way I analyzed to help me learn what I didn't know that I didn't know. I can say with confidence that I'm better now than I was only a few months ago, and I was better then than I was last year. 

I guess what I'm getting at is there's always a chance to learn, and in an industry like this one you learn by doing. That doesn't mean you have to hunt down publishers right now to get a gig, but you need to be doing something right now to prepare for that gig - writing societies, coming up with new archetypes, doing SOMETHING so that when you do get that chance you A. have something in your bag you can show them, and B., know enough about the industry that you can create whatever's asked of you. Knowing who to talk to or where to send your manuscripts is secondary; if you're work isn't practiced and polished enough to impress, it's not going to get published no matter who sees it. I'm a firm dis-believer in Auteur theory; there's no mythical creativity that you either have or you don't; it all comes down to practice and study, and sometimes doing it badly is a prerequisite to learning to do it well.

Perhaps that's not nearly as profound as I'm making it sound. I hope so. Like lots of others in this field I love watching new people get involved, especially since I'm so new myself. The industry may be small (relatively speaking) but its growing, and it will only continue to grow so long as new voices are constantly being added to the mix.

And I, for one, would love to see this industry boom.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Creative Play, or The New-Old School

Recently, I was asked by a professor at BYU to run a gaming session for some of his students. The class is on the theory of Games and Play, and as their homework for next class they need to play a tabletop RPG. I agreed and, not wanting to overwhelm the (most likely) newbie students with a lot of rules, sent them a link to the Swords and Wizardry SRD and sat down to read one of their published modules in preparation.

As I've gone over in some previous posts, I love old-school gaming. I love hiring henchmen, I love finding creative ways to beat or escape from unstoppable monsters, I love 10-ft poles, and I love having to fast-talk the guard, find the secret door, and disarm the trap all without a roll of the dice.

The thing is, I also love modern gaming; I love calculating builds, I love difficult tactical combats, I love investing in the story of a character, and I love using a host of powers to turn the tide of a critical fight.

As I read Bill Webb's introduction to the module and read his discussion of how he runs his games at home, I realized something: Spheres of Power is a personal attempt to marry the two.

Old-School gaming is not just about being rules-light; it's about rewarding player creativity. Players jam doors with metal spikes, use 10-foot poles to prod the dungeon floor, and use complicated rope tricks to get from point A to point B across any obstacle. Heck, some creative uses of abilities became so standard they were even codified in later editions (In the 2nd Edition Handbook, the Light spell gave directions for how to use the spell to light up someone's eyes to blind them, as this creative use of the spell become so popular it was practically standard use.)

Being a Pathfinder supplement first, Spheres of Power codifies its rules in a very modern-game sort of way, detailing everything it can for complicated builds and tactical combats, but as I do more and more development on it, the more I'm realizing I keep erring on the side of encouraging player creativity and open-ended mechanics, in a way that feels very Old-School to me. I may have used Pathfinder spells as bench-marks in the beginning, but more and more as I write and re-write the spheres and talents, I keep moving away from distinct packaged powers and more towards power-based guidelines.

Just yesterday, I sat down with the Warp sphere and realized that some of the talent divisions felt too spell-like to me; one talent (Call Object) for summoning an object to one's hand, but another (micro-portal) for using a readied action to grab a projectile out of the air. This division would make sense if I were writing spells, but logically speaking, if you can already call an object to your side, why couldn't you grab an arrow out of the air? I mulled it over; a clever player would use Call Object to grab a projectile and I'd certainly let him do it, but by having a talent dedicated to the maneuver, the Exclusion Principle ("if you need a feat to perform an action, you therefore can't perform that action without the feat") seemed to say it wasn't how the power was 'supposed' to be used. In the end, I cut the projectile-focused talent and added a mention to Call Object detailing how to use it on objects in the air.

The great, and also strange, thing about the F20 tradition (games involved in, or evolved from, D&D) is the subtle shift each mechanical variant brings to the game; there are a million versions of the same fantasy theme, and each one fits a little better, or a little worse, into each individual playstyle. As for the particular way the Spheres adjusts playstyle, only more development, playtests, and backer's surveys will determine how and how well this adjustment plays, but development always goes a little better when one has a philosophical goal to aim for and the New-Old School sounds like a good goal to me.